Cancer, Cheating, and Cell Communication

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Athena Aktipis is the director and principal investigator at the Cooperation and Conflict Lab at Arizona State University, where they “explore how cooperation and conflict shape life, from human societies to cellular interactions”. Michael Levin is principal investigator at the Levin Lab at Tufts University, where they study, among other things, “bioelectrical signals that make up part of the language by which cells communicate to serve the patterning needs of the host organism.”

Cooperation, conflict, and communicating information — between cells and between multicellular organisms, including humans — follows amazingly similar patterns across multiple scales.

One aspect of Michael’s work involves electrical signaling networks that form in bacterial biofilms, like a nervous system that coordinates activity in the biofilm as a whole — and from that coordination, such a simple organism can behave in ways that appear to be directed toward goals. A key topic in Athena’s work is understanding the role of cancer in multicellular organisms. She recently published a book on that subject, titled The Cheating Cell: How Evolution Helps Us Understand and Treat Cancer.

How do the systems that Athena and Michael study relate to Teilhard’s conception of the noosphere? One connection is the importance of seeing the noosphere — along with biological systems at multiple levels — as collective phenomena. The term collective shows up 19 times in The Formation of the Noosphere, and 13 times in this conversation between Athena, Michael, and David Sloan Wilson. 3 instances are cited below.

In Teilhard’s description of the phases of the noosphere’s formation, he writes:

“We have found it possible to express the social totalization which we are undergoing in terms of a clearly identifiable biological process: proceeding from this we may surely look into the future and predict the course of the trajectory we are describing. Once we have accepted that the formation of a collective human organism, a Noosphere, conforms to the general law of recurrence which leads to the heightening of Consciousness in the universe as a function of complexity, a vast prospect opens before us.”

His reference to a “general law of recurrence” underlying the rise of consciousness and complexity is another indication that Teilhard perceived the existence of the major evolutionary transitions decades before they were theorized from a more rigorous scientific perspective. Early in the conversation, Athena explains why that theory was an early inspiration for her:

“I’ve been fascinated by the idea of major transitions, from the time that I was in my late teens. This notion that you have levels of organization where you get regulation of cooperation, and that allows you to build additional levels has been a foundation of my thinking from the very beginning. The notion that there is this layer of collective cognition that’s happening in humanity, to me, it’s a reflection of the fact that under all of these different levels you have computation and information processing happening in surprising places.”

Michael’s focus is on trying to gain a better understanding of how goal-directedness emerges in even the simplest of collective systems, such as his bacterial biofilms:

“But the bigger issue to me, the much bigger issue is to get started working on a science, which we don’t yet have of figuring out where the goals of collective systems come from and how do we manage them, because we’re not good at seeing them in advance.”

Given the challenges facing the global noosphere today, it seems like figuring out where the goals of collective systems come from should be a critical goal, in and of itself. This conversation is an exploration of that idea, and many others — another fascinating contribution to our understanding of the Science of the Noosphere.

Athena Aktipis and Michael Levin Transcript